Poems by Nicole Cooley
Still Life, Galvez Street, 1978
“Stay upstairs,” my mother tells me. “Take care of your sister.” Inside our house, floodwaters are rising
Inch-by-inch, foot-by-foot, our basement brims with water. Rain lashes the windows. Parish drainage pumps have failed. My sister and I stand at the top of the basement stairs, watching my dollhouse, the house my mother built from scratch, painted, and decorated, the house for which she sewed four dolls, each the size of a finger, replicas of each member of our family.
Everything in the basement is ruined, and I am a selfish, bad daughter who cares only about her dollhouse.
For three days, we don’t go to school. We don’t leave the house. We sit at the top of the basement stairs. Floodwater does not drain. Water rises to my dollhouse’s edge, swirls over the cobblestone path that circles the house. I wish for the interior of the house, all six rooms, painted shiny enameled pink, to stay dry and safe. Portraits she made from postcards and hung on the walls. Rugs she crocheted. Canopy bed she built.
In the basement, the water is now a foot deep. “The water is full of chemicals and run-off from the street,” my mother says. “Stay right there.” Toxic or not, the water rises, and she wades through it, barefoot,
The levees do not break, no floodwalls crack. Yet nothing in the basement can be saved. Except my dollhouse.
Proof of my mother’s magic: she built me my own house that can’t ever be destroyed.
Elegy, Napoleon House, New Orleans
And a year now past her death and I am “better” – for instance I am not
eating her foods, not pouring ranch dressing on cottage cheese, both of which I hate,
and shoveling it in my mouth. And I am not starving myself to echo her body,
Also I am not lying the floor curled like a shrimp only to rouse myself
when my girls get home from school to stop my crying. Yet grief does not
sharpen over time nor does it –as I once believed—loosen. It is just a weight.
My limbs feel so heavy. My shoulders burn. My wrists ache deeply. Next to me,
the two men at the table are talking about grief. “Grief is not something
you get through.” one says. Like me, they are middle aged. One just lost his father.
“The thing about immediate grief…” the man begins but he doesn’t finish.
The second man quotes Saul Bellow—“Losing a parent is like driving through a plate
glass window.” Eavesdropping, I immediately Google—can’t find it anywhere.
“Are you sleeping?” one asks the other and I am thinking how after she died the carpet in my mother’s room was so full of smoke it spread like a stain. I am thinking
how my childhood is now over. As I always do, I am thinking about how I wish grief would sharpen the world. Instead it dulls and dulls and dulls.
Razor blade wiped too many times on a towel.
Nicole Cooley is the author of six books of poems, most recently Of Marriage (Alice James Books 2018) and Girl after Girl after Girl (LSU Press 2017), as well as the forthcoming Mother Water Ash (LSU Press 2024). Her poems have appeared most recently in Poetry, DIODE, and Scoundrel Time. She grew up in New Orleans and lives outside of NYC and teaches in the MFA program in creative writing and literary translation at Queens College, City University of New York.